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The Netherlands is the world’s second-largest exporter of agricultural products, according to the Dutch government. Human workers currently handle most of the sorting and packing of fruits and vegetables because their sense of touch is needed for the labor-intensive tasks, but a robotic hand could change that.
As the average age of Europe’s population increases, if a workforce can’t be found to keep up with the global demand for food, it will have to be created. A key element of robotic food processing is the development of a sufficiently sensitive hand to relieve the tedium.
Dutch robotics market grows
Food Technology Noord-Oost Nederland BV (FTNON) has purchased a majority share in Lacquey VB, providing access to international markets for Lacquey’s “careful robotic hand.” Lacquey was spun out of the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft).
The food industry is “under-roboticized at the moment, compared to, for example, automotive or semiconductors,” said Richard van der Linde, CEO of Lacquey. “The market is huge — but complexity is much higher due to the product differences.”
“We did not know that this market is very hard to penetrate,” he added via e-mail. “What we also underestimated was the complexity of all the peripheral technology required, such as vision and processing equipment (e.g., decoring). There is a lot of intelligence required to grab a leafy product and manipulate it properly without damaging it.”
Getting the touch right
Initial development of the hand over the past few years included redesigning it for more economical production, testing it for robustness with tens of millions of gripping cycles without failure, and optimizing the design for various fruits and vegetables, said Martijn Wisse, a professor of mechanical engineering at TU Delft who led the research.
“After this was perfected, the effort focused on systems integration with industrial robot arms and vision software,” he said.
Lacquey’s “underactuated” robotic hand has one motor controlling three fingers. “The term ‘underactuated‘ may be misleading, as if something is missing,” said Wisse. “An alternative phrase would be ‘extra flexible.’ Normally, with one motor or actuator, a robot gripper would have parallel fingers that basically can only fetch one shape, for example all square boxes.”
Like a human hand, articulation isn’t the same thing as control. Muscles and tendons control multiple bones, enabling fingers to wrap around an object without requiring control of each joint. “Lacquey is one of our success stories when demonstrating the value of bio-inspired robotics research,” Wisse said.
“We have added more flexibility, more joints or hinges, all interconnected with patented differential mechanisms,” Wisse explained. “In standard grippers, more actuators are added to control the extra joints, but we [don’t]. You could say that the differential mechanisms replace the added actuators. The resulting extra flexibility makes the gripper adapt to variable food shapes, and at the same time, the mechanisms distribute the gripping force equally over all contact points. So there are no pressure points, and the food doesn’t get damaged.”
As a result, Lacquey’s robotic hand relies on mechanical means rather than additional sensors. “That’s the beauty of it: There are no sensors required in the fingers,” said Wisse. “There are no sensors and wires that could break, resulting in extremely robust grippers that work when fully submerged.
Bustling market provides opportunity
Lacquey’s production of its FetchHand product has halted to allow the company to focus on the food-handling market, Wisse said.
“There are quite some promising gripping technologies around; it’s a busy field at the moment,” said Lacquey’s van der Linde. “As far as we know, there are no robot grippers focusing on food-safe industrial solutions, especially not for the fresh-cut market. Ours is unique for the ‘careful yet powerful enclosing of the product.’ We focus on the applications that require gripping.”
The careful robotic hand must not only have a delicate touch, but it should also be robust enough for industrial use.
“Downtime is simply no option, so products are designed for maximal endurance, food safety, and hard cleaning regimes,” said van der Linde. “Spare parts in stock, remote support, and preventive maintenance are requirements to guarantee uptime.”
Development so far took about a million euros, according to van der Linde, who declined to say how much FTNON paid for Lacquey.
“What remains now is gaining experience at various customer sites and setting up the organization for scaling up,” he said, since the fresh-cut industry is about a $10 billion market worldwide.
Lacquey and FTNON plan to focus on the European and U.S. markets first, he said.